British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the EU helm Friday, announcing he will host an EU summit to assess the direction and speed of European integration.
Blair said the purpose of the autumn summit was to review how Europe's treasured social model is hobbling the continent economically and to see if the 25 leaders can rekindle public enthusiasm about the EU's future.
Blair said he will ask the leaders to revisit their ambitious goal to make Europe the world's most dynamic economy by 2010, an undertaking launched in 2000 but one that has missed many targets already.
That failure, coupled with the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters and Blair's own acrimonious exchanges with French President Jacques Chirac at a mid-June summit over EU finances point to a general malaise in the EU.
"You cannot really abstract the [EU] financing deal from this debate about the future direction of Europe," Blair told a visiting group of Brussels-based journalists.
Earlier he met with the European Commission -- the EU executive -- to discuss the agenda for the second half of this year when Britain holds the EU presidency.
At a joint news conference with European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, Blair said the two "agreed it would be sensible to have an informal summit ... to discuss how Europe can make progress in the future."
He set no date for the meeting.
Blair said the crisis of confidence gripping the EU required a period of intense soul-searching that would have to cover a wide field: from the EU's economic failures to its contentious plans to embrace more newcomers, to revamping the budget that still devotes more than 40 percent of annual spending, to agriculture.
It was the farm-spending issue that caused the collapse of the June summit in Brussels, compounding a crisis resulting from the French and Dutch voter rejection of the EU charter two weeks earlier.
The EU leaders have pushed back a November 2006 deadline for all EU states to ratify the EU constitution -- by perhaps as much as a year.
On Friday, Blair said he saw little chance of rescuing the charter.
He said the French and Dutch rejection reflected an ill-defined but deep-seated sense among the bloc's population that the EU is out of touch with public opinion and not acting on sensitive issues such as immigration, crime and security.
Blair pledged to try hard in the second half of this year to get agreement on an EU budget for the years after 2007. "Whether that is possible I really don't know. Nor does anyone else at this stage," he added.
The budget disagreement touches on Blair's refusal to give in to his partners' demand to surrender an annual rebate -- now totaling some 4.6 billion euros (US$5.5 billion) -- that London gets for its large budget payments. Britain's net payments are large because it has relatively few farmers, limiting its ability to win EU funding.
In Blair's view, the EU budget as structured now will not let EU governments take in new, poorer members and at the same time fulfill their 2000 promise to make Europe the world's most dynamic economy.